Climate change is back on the political agenda and government must respond with radical new policies that achieve modal shift


Stagecoach operates nine BYD ADL zero emission electric buses in Guildford


We haven’t got long. The five warmest years on record have occurred in the last 10 years. The incidence of flooding, drought, hurricanes and fires is increasing exponentially. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of the extreme risks associated even with two degrees of global warming, and that we have a decade to get onto a safe trajectory to 1.5 degrees. Evidence of the planet warming is irrefutable.

The cross-party consensus that enabled the UK Parliament to pass the first ever legally binding Climate Change Act in 2008, with only three MPs voting against, is back and as strong as ever, with all our parliaments declaring a climate emergency. Ministers have enthusiastically welcomed the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)’s recommendation earlier this month that the UK sets the target to be net zero by 2050.

It’s fair to say that over the past decade the issue of climate change slipped down the political agenda. Politicians’ minds have been elsewhere as they struggled to deal with the economic crisis, the rise of extremism and some of the wider repercussions of globalisation. However, the schools strikes and climate change activism of Extinction Rebellion have emphatically brought the issue back to the fore – and helped focus all our minds on the greatest existential threat we face.

Whilst the UK accounts for only around 1% of global warming annually, as Greta has reminded us we have 200-year legacy of carbon emissions to account for. This puts us in a unique position. As the progenitor of the industrial revolution and associated use of fossil fuels, it is beholden on the UK to show the leadership internationally that our politicians say they want the UK to do.

Ministers are keen to emphasise – and reassure our young protesters – that we have made good progress. Since 1990, greenhouse gas emissions in the UK have fallen by 42%. However, there is no room for complacency. These reductions have been achieved thanks mainly to actions in the power sector. Going forward reductions will be much harder to achieve, with all other parts of the economy now required to deliver deep emissions cuts. We are not even close to being on track to meet existing carbon budget targets, let alone the CCC’s recommended net zero target.

We in the transport sector have a particular responsibility to act.

Surface transport is currently the largest emitting sector of the UK economy, accounting for 28% of UK greenhouse gases. Reductions have flatlined over the past decade. In recent years emissions from new cars have actually increased partly as a result of the switch from diesel back to petrol on account of the linking of local air pollution to 40,000 early deaths a year. Cheaper fuel prices combined with improved efficiency of vehicles have also encouraged people to buy larger vehicles. In 2018, SMMT recorded an increase in sales of SUVs.

If everyone switched just one car journey a month to bus or coach instead that would mean one billion fewer car journeys and a saving of two million tonnes of CO2

Exactly 10 years ago this month Greener Journeys came into being. Our mission was to promote the carbon reduction benefits of modal switch: “If everyone switched just one car journey a month to bus or coach instead that would mean one billion fewer car journeys and a saving of two million tonnes of CO2”. Since 2009 we have built compelling evidence of the wider social, economic and environmental benefits of the bus. A 10% improvement in bus service connectivity is associated with a 3.6% reduction in social deprivation. Investment in bus infrastructure can deliver £8 for every £1 spent.

Over the past decade there has also been a revolution in clean bus technology. Not only does modal switch from car to bus deliver immediate carbon reduction benefits, but with more than 5,000 low carbon emission vehicles in operation, the bus sector has the greatest penetration of low carbon vehicles across all forms of motorised road transport. Moreover, according to Low CVP analysis, buses are leading the way on the road to zero emissions. In 2018, 4.2% of the bus sector was zero emission at the tailpipe, (including 309 electric buses and 20 running on hydrogen fuel cells) – compared with the best ever monthly figure for the car sector of 1% pure battery electric vehicles.

Along with the accelerated role out of electric cars and vans, and associated charging infrastructure, public transport must be a central part of the solution. As indeed must modal switch to other forms of sustainable transport including walking and cycling, car sharing, reducing the need to travel and improving the efficacy of delivery and logistics. Tackling congestion is an urgent priority if we are to deliver reductions in time. In nose to tail traffic emissions increase fourfold, a problem which has been greatly exacerbated by the sharp increase in delivery vehicles arising from the exponential growth in online shopping.

Government must introduce the right fiscal measures. Some form of road pricing will be unavoidable. Government must also empower local areas to improve the efficiency and environmental performance of their transport systems by providing regional authorities with secure, devolved, long-term funding, enabling them to plan and invest on a more strategic basis. Getting transport and land use planning right will be critically important. New housing developments must be well served by public transport if we are to avoid increasing congestion and emissions.

There are some important asks for central government. For example, the politically tricky issue of fuel duty must be addressed. Since 2011, the freeze in fuel duty (cut in real terms) has made the price of fuel at the pump 13% lower than it would otherwise have been. This has caused there to be 4% more traffic, 4.5 million additional tonnes of CO2, 12,000 additional tonnes of NOx, and up to 200 million fewer bus journeys and 60 million fewer rail journeys; and has cost the public purse more than £46bn.

Whilst the long-term solution to road transport’s CO2 and NOx output is to switch from fossil fuels to electric vehicles, continually reducing duty on petrol and diesel in real terms reduces the incentive to switch to electric vehicles. Moreover, reducing cost of driving compared with using public transport encourages people to drive more, increasing both pollution and congestion. At the very least fuel duty should be linked to inflation in future budgets. The money raised from future increases in fuel duty should be ring fenced and used to accelerate the roll out of electric vehicles and to encourage greater use of public transport.

Looking a little closer to home there is a lot more that the public transport sector could and should be doing.

Norman Baker was quite right to highlight in his last column for Passenger Transport that the sight of Greta travelling around Europe by train should be a wake-up call for rail companies, and that the public transport industry as whole should be using the window that has opened up to position itself as a central part of the solution to climate change. Not only would this demonstrate that bus and rail travel is a public good, but it clearly makes commercial sense for operators to use the agenda to promote modal switch from car (and plane) to their services.

Why aren’t we calling for massive investment in the rapid roll out of zero emission zones powered by electric buses with entry restrictions on private cars?

There is currently a paucity of ambition on this agenda. If we want mass transit to be at the heart of carbon reduction – as well as central to tackling air pollution and congestion – then why aren’t we calling for massive investment in the rapid roll out of zero emission zones powered by electric buses with entry restrictions on private cars? Surely that has to be as close to a silver bullet for reducing pollution and congestion as it gets?

Such a shift in policy would of course require a far greater scale of financial commitment to the bus sector from government than has ever been forthcoming. This is also sadly a very long way from where government policy is currently on air quality. The hierarchy set out in the guidance for Clean Air Zones directs councils to target older buses first, with cars only as a last resort. Whilst it is good that the air quality benefits of Euro 6 buses and retrofitting to Euro 6 standard have been recognised, there is still the very real risk that the current direction of policy on clean air will lead to fewer trips by public transport.

We should, however, be encouraged by developments elsewhere in government thinking. The principles set out in the government’s Future of Mobility Urban Strategy include: “Mass transit must remain fundamental to an efficient transport system”; and, “Mobility innovation must help reduce congestion through more efficient use of limited road space”. That feels like a signal that government could be willing to consider more radical pro public transport interventions. We must capitalise on this.

Given the scale of the existential challenge we face, only bold and ambitious solutions will suffice. If ever there was a moment to put modal switch from car to sustainable mass transit at the heart of government policy it is now.


About the author:

Claire Haigh is chief executive of Greener Journeys, a coalition of the UK’s major public transport organisations and other supporters committed to encouraging people to make more sustainable travel choices –


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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